Jump to content
  • Sign Up


Nathan Mao

Recommended Posts

I was thinking about that phrase today.


I understand what it means: "leave/depart"


What I don't understand is how it means "leave/depart".



If I had not encountered 走人 previously, and had to say "when all your points are gone, you must leave", I would translate that into Chinese as something like "扣完,你得走".


Or put another way, "走人" means the person leaves.  But 走路 doesn't mean the road leaves, right?


So I asked my wife.  She said she had no idea where that came from.  But she said that it wasn't really a formal or correct way of speaking, it is pretty much some slang that has become very widespread in use.


Does anyone have a better answer than that?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some languages have a special form of verb (sometimes called the "middle voice") that corresponds to the agent/subject acting on itself or with reference to itself.  My guess is that this colloquial use of 走人 is like that and connotes something like "get yourself/one's self going."  The character 人 is then acting like an impersonal object pronoun or patient of the verb 走.


If you speak French or Spanish, compare this use of 走人 to the use of the reflexive in French s'en aller or Spanish irse, which both help add this subtle connotation of "getting yourself going" to the simple idea of "going."  The two notions combined are one of the normal ways of saying the equivalent of "go away" or "leave."  The reflexive pronouns are more or less equivalent to the impersonal use of 人.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Do you have any context of "扣完,得走人"? What‘s 扣完’s subject?I guess the whole sentence might be :"要是钱/分数扣完了,你得走人". "走人" means get fired.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It was in 士兵突击.


At one point, the superior officer says that everyone has 100 points.  He will take off points for everything they do wrong.  When all your points are gone, you leave.


But I've also heard it said in anger or irritation: 



I understand what it means...I'm just curious about the etymology, since the phrase seems to rely on a unique grammar formulation not used at any other time.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm not familiar with that term.


Looking it up, it apparently has some similarities, albeit less directive than 走人 seems to be.


Do you have any insight into the etymology of 走神?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

走神,走人 are set phrase or idiom I think. It may be a waste of time figuring how they come from. 

There's also a similar phrase, 走水 meaning that something catches fire. :mrgreen: 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think if you get away from the notion that the meanings of all Chinese words are compositional then it becomes easier to just accept that some words don't "make sense" if you try to break them down into the meaning of their parts. Most of them aren't compound words in the same way that words like "racecar" and "backhoe" are, and it may just confound you.




To me all of those are not quite like the way that 走路 works either.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well, some words don't make sense, but these do. 走 is a transitive verb and 人 is the object, as explained by Altair. I find 走神 similar but with 走 meaning "loss" rather than "leave."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ugh I didn't say I don't find etymology interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have dedicated so much of my academic life to studying linguistics. I don't see something like 走人 and think that it is a relic of some historical processes just because I can't make sense of the way that the morphemes interact to create the meaning. In fact, you already knew that 走人 means to leave, but you tried to relate it to how 走路 doesn't mean that the road leaves? This to me is typical of a way of thinking that all words employ the same method of combining meaning.


"Make sense" is in scare quotes. I don't know if there is a more clear way to express that there is usually a reason behind the way words form, but they don't always fit what you expect, and so they may not make sense to you, but the fact that they exist isn't necessarily an oddity. (Edit: But I also don't really agree with Altair's explanation, because I'd expect to find more examples of this type of reflexive usage.)


I personally find it super interesting that words like 吓人、动人、累人 are all adjectives and 走人 is still a verb.

(Edit #2: It is not clear from what I say above exactly what my stance is. I think that 走人 is a word that defies the general word composition rules of modern Chinese, but it does not feel like an extremely old word. I agree with Vivi MENG that the usage is likely just an idiom in the same way that phrasal verbs in English are, rather than the slightly too-meta-for-me cross-linguistic explanation à l'Altair, but I don't think it's a waste of time. I just think that it's important to remind ourselves that compositionality in Chinese is not the same as it is in English.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The only reason I broke it down was to demonstrate that I had done due diligence in trying to figure it out or think it through myself before asking for help; I had pretty much eliminated a compositional explanation before I asked.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sometimes languages change in fits and starts.  Behind every idiom is usually some explanation that fits within the overall way a language works.  In addition to 走, other examples might be 丢人 and 费人思索.


The French example I gave ("s'en aller") does not at all represent a widespread phenomenon in French.  In fact, it might be thought of only as some weird idiom except that Spanish, which is a closely related language, uses a similar structure much more widely.  Just because a pattern is not common does not mean it does not have a valid explanation.


My original explanation was inspired from some recent reading on general Chinese morphology in An ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, by Axel Schuessler.  The analysis is mostly in the context of Old (or Archaic) Chinese and related Sino-Tibetan languages, but does apply to those parts of modern Chinese that echo the grammar, morphology, or syntactical categories of Old Chinese.  It is very heavy on the linguistics, but for those who have expressed an interest in etymology, below are some relevant quotes from pages 38-39.  They in no way prove my speculation about the origin of 走人, but do show that Chinese patterns quite differently from English in terms of transitivity.


A dichotomy in direction and causativity is well recognized in Chinese...and also in Tibeto-Burman languages..., note introvert-extrovert / causative pairs like 'to hear'--'to ask' in both [Chinese] and [Tibeto-Burman] languages....


Historically, three phenomena have partially or completely coalesced in Old Chinese: (1) semantic introvert/extrovert; (2) grammatical transitivity distinctions; (3) grammatical active/passive distinctions.  The result of these partial mergers is the intersection pattern of endoactive / exoactive / endopassive / exopassive derivational categories (Table 4-3)....


Introvert and extrovert (endo- / exo-) are semantic categories that are readily apparent from a word's meaning.  In introvert words, the action is directed toward the subject, or happens to or within the subject (to buy, to watch, to grow; in extrovert words the action originates in or with the subject and is directed out and away to a necessarily external object (to sell, to show).


'Endoactive' is similar to the 'middle voice' of some [indo-European] languages; the action was conceived as operating in or on the subject; in the exoactive, the verbal action was directed outwards from the subject....


We could have used the familiar labels 'middle' for 'endoactive', 'active' or ' causative' for 'exoactive', 'passive' for exopassive'.  However, the [indo-European} middle voice drifts toward the passsive, whereas the [Chinese] category remains active.  Furthermore, [indo-European] languages make no clearly marked introvert-exovert distinction.


Here are some examples of words in the various categories:


Simplex (i.e., underived or unmarked): 张,见,闻 (wén)(in the meaning "to hear about"),善


Endoactive: 买, 饮 (in 上声),长 ('zhǎng'),等 (in the meaning "step of stairs", or "things that ascend"), 缮 ("repair" or "put in good order")


Exoactive: 卖 ("sell" or "give to buy"), 饮 (in 去声)("to give to drink"), 问 (wèn)(in the meaning "to ask about" or "get yourself to hear")


Endopassive: 长 ("be long" or "to be stretched"), 现 ("appear" or "to be seeable")


Exopassive: 闻 (wèn)(in the meaning "to be heard about", "famous"), 膳 ('be done well':) 'cooked food'


If such categories were so common in older in Chinese, I don't find it a big stretch to imagine that 走人 is imply a reinvention of an old distinction that emphasizes an introvert meaning of the simple 走.

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...